Albert Dock

To accompany his article in the April 2024 issue of Leisure Painter, Brian Smith shows how he depicts water using a variety of examples from his sketchbook.

Sketching canal scenes

On a recent visit to Chester, I found a huge number of scenes I would like to sketch but a dearth of vantage points from which to sketch them.

The Canal Towpath, initial sketch

In the end I settled on two, The Canal Towpath, see above, and a Narrow Boat Come Restaurant, below, both of them based more on accessibility than great content, the former was sketched kneeling on the narrow grass towpath, looking into the light and the latter sitting with my back to a concrete viaduct wall.

Narrow Boat Come Restaurant, initial sketch

I drew both initially with minimal ink lines and lots of pencil tone which I hoped would get the scenes, but I felt the former didn’t quite get the contre jour effect I wanted and the latter lacked clarity.

With several elements all jostling for priority and too many similar values, I decided to photograph both scenes and add paint once we were back in our digs.

The addition of colour

I felt the addition of colour had the right effect in each case, for different reasons.

Canal Towpath, the scene needed colour to bring out the light.

Adding complementary violets and yellow-greens to the towpath scene helped evoke the light I had seen, in a way that working in black and white had not.

Narrow Boat come Restaurant. Here I paid particular attention to the information in the water to try and capture its personality.

Similarly, the addition of colour in the narrowboat sketch helped emphasise the differences between the vessel and the two other elements – the water and the warehouse behind it.

I used a considerable amount of pencil tone in both the initial sketches above. Establishing values with graphite before adding paint is a perfectly viable method of working quickly and authentically.

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Sketching swimming pools

Poolside. Note how the overlaid richer blues have been placed quickly, so paint flows and marks are not isolated. The water also reflects nicely on the adjacent tiles.

Poolside, above, is a line and wash view from our family holiday pool in Majorca last year.

The water is a mix of a lighter underpainting and darker washes laid wet on dry using light cool (Cerulean) and dark cool (Prussian) blues as the base.

Sketching with watercolour

The Tide Mill, Woodbridge

The Tide Mill, Woodbridge, above, and Honfleur, below, both use the same technique of painting reflections free of line work, just watercolour.

It’s obviously important to align what is above and below water level, another obvious but essential watery trait.

Honfleur. This view is much painted, probably because there is somewhere to sit all along the harbour wall, offering this excellent composition.

Capturing reflections

Udaipur 4.

In Udaipur 4, above, I was more interested in the buildings than the water, which was sketchily placed.

Vertical “reflection” strokes counterpoised with horizontal strokes on the surface itself are very characteristic of water, especially where the horizontals extend across several verticals, unifying the surface appearance. These horizontals can be added as darks, as whites, or as scratches from a scalpel.

I was sitting on the Ghats surrounded by a raucous gaggle of interested local children, for this line and wash, which  was more about placing positive reflections on a white paper background, than painting the blue backdrop and leaving white shapes in the negative.

Preserving the whites

Albert Dock, 10x10cm on cartridge paper

In Albert Dock, above, wet in wet dashes in the underpainted water wash suggest a gentle swell. Bold, rich colour in reflected darks sells the scheme.

This tiny sketch, though quickly made, is perfectly legible. Some colours are placed to run and combine, while others are carefully placed not to, to preserve whites and bring order. The mooring rope is a white gel pen.

Sketching with limited time

Ferry to Fowey, 42x21cm, 6B pencil on cartridge, with torchon.

Ferry to Fowey, above, is a simple composition, which is fortunate as I had only minutes to make it from the stern of the ferry before it left Mevagissey Harbour.

The use of thick, scrubby ripple marks lend an instant authenticity.

About Brian Smith

Brian is a professional artist and demonstrator who runs watercolour courses at his Sheffield base as well as troubleshooting ‘surgeries’ in all media for art societies.

To find out more or to buy Brian’s work, contact him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook.


You can read Brian's full article on how to sketch water, the ninth in his series on sketching, in the April 2024 issue of Leisure Painter. For instant digital access to the complete series and much more, join our Studio with Painters Online membership.


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